Imagine yourself a young woman diagnosed as “feeble-minded” and trapped in legal proceedings. You take the defense of your personal autonomy to the Supreme Court and finally hear your name in this decision:
Carrie Buck “is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization,” and thereupon make the order. [The “order” is compulsory submission to “the operation of salpingectomy…for the purpose of making her sterile.”]1
In Carrie Buck’s failed 1927 Constitutional challenge, the Court upheld a Virginian law that applied Darwinian eugenics (programs selectively propagating the “fitter,” “well born,” or “good races”) to promote state welfare. In its aftermath, eugenics laws in 31 other states were upheld.
Emboldened by the consensus of scientists, evolutionary research, and now the Supreme Court decision, forced sterilizations of “unfit” citizens increased dramatically throughout the 1930s. Remarkably, sterilizations in some states actually increased after World War II.2
The tragedy of state-mandated sterilization of those deemed mentally ill or mentally retarded continued into the 1970s.
The final nail in the coffin for state-sponsored sterilization was the 1974 case of Relf v. Weinberger. In Alabama in 1973, officials from the Federal Community Action Program (an anti-poverty program for minorities) took the Relf girls, Katie, 16, Mary Alice, 14, and Minnie, 12, to a doctor who inserted an IUD in Katie and sterilized Minnie and Mary Alice.3
People carry eugenics’ scars to this day. Like these 12- and 14-year-old girls, who are now women bearing tubal ligations, Carrie Buck’s intelligence was normal all along. She and her husband never had children, and in the United States over 70,000 other victims were compulsorily sterilized, including 8,000 procedures in Lynchburg, Virginia, alone.4 In other countries, most notoriously Germany, millions suffered the horrors of eugenics programs.
Eugenics was the quest to improve humanity’s genetic composition. Eugenicists selectively bred “superior” people and sought to eliminate genetic defects by sterilizing, aborting, or euthanizing “inferiors.”5 Medical applications were developed to mimic nature’s “selective” death and loss of reproduction5 by means of a large-scale implementation of Darwin’s belief that through a selective struggle for survival, “the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.”6
Professor Randolph Nesse, a current advocate for Darwinian medicine, candidly admits that the appalling legacy of eugenics-based thinking can be laid squarely on the concepts of Darwinian evolution. “In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” Nesse says, “most applications were ‘medical Darwinism’ that focused on the welfare of the species. In connection with eugenics, this led to moral and social disaster.”7 This disaster qualifies as a spectacular evolutionary blunder by any account.
Nesse’s concession is sparse on details of the link between evolution and eugenics. An explanation from the heyday of eugenics better illustrates why eugenics is wholly indebted to Darwinism. World-renowned British biostatistician Karl Pearson, who used mathematics to persuasively promote eugenics on three continents from 1900 until his death in 1936, explains:
That is, I think, the ever-present fear which the scientific mind recognises: civilised man has largely destroyed crude Natural Selection….In my own mind and in a growing number of other minds…[civilisation will end] unless civilisation can find a method of doing for itself what Natural Selection did for man during his ascent—insuring that he shall breed only from his best. The study of how it is possible forms the subject matter of what we now term the Science of Eugenics. We have to replace the ruthless action of Natural Selection by reasoned conduct in civilised man.8
Eugenics: When Humans Determine Survival of the Fittest
Could the eugenics moral disaster be not merely the misapplication of Darwinian natural selection but rather the actual consequence of that mindset? Death-survival, fitness, and selection are core characteristics of Darwin’s concept of natural selection. All are repeatedly stressed in Pearson’s influential 1912 address to the British Medical Association. Chastising physicians for saving “unfits,” he conveyed why all “must” embrace eugenic applications—and punctuated his points with disturbing photographs of people born with malformed limbs.
Let me…sketch for you the broad outlines of Darwin’s theory of evolutionary progress. The individual better fitted to its environment lived longer than its fellows, had more offspring, and these, inheriting its better fitness, raised the type of the race.…According to Darwin—and some of us still believe him to be right—the ascent of man, physical and mental, was brought about by this survival of the fitter. Now, if you are going to take Darwinism as your theory of life and apply it to human problems, you must not only believe it to be true, but you must set to, and demonstrate that it actually applies….Nevertheless, medical science has to face the fact that the upward progress of man in the past has been largely controlled by stringent Darwinian selection. We shall gain nothing for racial efficiency by neglecting that central fact of human development. Now if there be…a fairly stringent selection of the weaker individuals by the mortality of infancy and childhood, what will happen, if by increased medical skill and by increased state support and private charity, we enable the weaklings to survive and to propagate their kind? Why, undoubtedly we shall have a weaker race….But we can show from isolated instances that in many ways medical science has led to a survival of the unfit.9
At one end of the eugenics spectrum were applications like the marriage registry in the U.S.’s Eugenics Records Office, meant to help people choose “fit” mates from a list of individuals deemed to have desirable inheritable characteristics.10 Survival-of-the-fittest applications also extended to the spectrum’s other end. Charles Epstein, the late president of the American College of Medical Genetics, recounted, “Thus, even if the original notion was of positive eugenics, the actual implementation of eugenic principles very quickly began to run along negative eugenic lines….The object was to ensure the nonsurvival of those considered to be unfit…by prevention of marriage and of racial mixing, institutionalization, sterilization, and sometimes castration.” He added, “No longer was breeding of the undesirable to be controlled—rather, the breeders who were thought to carry the undesirable genes were to be eliminated altogether.”11
Comparable selection-based eugenics beliefs even subtly crept into Christianity. Some claimed that natural selection, though fueled by death, helps the population by getting rid of genetic defects and thus preserves the viability of a population by removing those members with severely harmful or lethal characteristics—which, they say, exhibits the care of God for His creation in a post-Fall world.
The Euthanasia Society of America started in 1938 as a natural corollary to the movement to prevent “unfit” births. Science historian Ian Dowbiggin documents that members promoted voluntarily and involuntarily euthanizing severely afflicted people, noting that “mid-twentieth-century American social activists believed that ‘birth control’ and ‘death control’ formed ‘a rational coalition,’ two aspects of the same crusade to liberate human beings from afflictions that had plagued human history for centuries.”12 They viewed “the histories of euthanasia, eugenic sterilization, and birth control in the United States less as separate narratives and more as a single, broad chronicle of events inextricably linked.”13
How Eugenics Gained Medical Support
Eugenicists employed an effective technique to gain scientific respectability and persuade physicians to act contrary to their medical instincts: peer-reviewed publications. This technique is still useful for obtaining scientific consensus, legislative endorsements, and public acceptance of counterintuitive “scientific” conjectures that carry profound social ramifications—and that may also blossom into enormous blunders.
Scientific journals like the Annals of Eugenics and Eugenics Quarterly provided peer-reviewed credibility. Major peer-reviewed journals also promoted eugenics, as “from 1910 through 1914 more than 120 articles about eugenics appeared in magazines, a volume of print making it one of the nation’s favorite topics….Lobbyists succeeded in part because of favorable views expressed in the medical profession. During the period from 1926 to 1936 about 60 [medical] articles, the vast majority in favor of eugenical sterilization, appeared.”14 Eugenicists thus secured scientific and medical respectability. Later, however, geneticists like Morgan, Pearl, and Haldane demonstrated that persuasive published research was “inadequate” and “old-fashioned rubbish”15 revealing earlier “veneer review” masquerading as genuine peer review.
For instance, Reilly reported about an influential 1902 study by surgeon Harry C. Sharp of the Indiana Reformatory on the effects of vasectomies performed on 42 inmates. Based on post-sterilization findings of the inmates sleeping better and feeling stronger, his paper advocated “render[ing] every male sterile who passes its portals, whether it be alms house, insane asylum, institute for the feeble minded, reformatory or prison.”16
The scientific consensus, including prominent faculty from Harvard University and Johns Hopkins Medical School, promoted eugenics as the view of science’s progressive thinkers.17 International Eugenics Congresses were held in 1912, 1921, and 1932, attended by some of the world’s leading scientists. Supporters were bestowed high academic honors, while dissenters were usually uninvited. Eugenics leaders like America’s Harry Laughlin already possessed “expert” status, occupying positions like the Superintendent of the Eugenics Records Office. Their authority was enhanced with actions similar to Laughlin’s appointment as Expert Eugenical Agent by a Congressional Committee Chairman in 1921.
Multiple eugenics advocacy organizations were filled with hundreds of prominent academicians—though few were geneticists or comprehended the weaknesses in the published literature. Capable researchers critical of eugenics—the minority group—occasionally “shocked” the scientific consensus by publicly questioning tenets of eugenics. The Roman Catholic Church was influential in blocking legislation in some states. Reilly recounts, “Leading eugenicists saw Catholic opposition as their ‘greatest obstacle,’” and he adds, “By the mid-1920s eugenicists had recognized the Catholic Church as a major enemy.”18
In sum, an ardent group advanced their message via media and educational institutions by these means: establish peer review to project credibility, control peer review procedures to muffle critiques, self-coronate “experts” to monopolize authority, and ostracize dissenters to enforce compliance. Through these efforts, eugenicists thoroughly won an international scientific consensus during the first four decades of the twentieth century.
Given its systemic misuse of science, the eugenics legacy was ultimately exposed as such a massive Darwinian blunder that in most literature today “the term [eugenics] is wielded like a club. To label a policy ‘eugenics’ is to say, in effect, that it is not just bad but beyond the pale.”19 Yet, Darwin’s concept of natural selection remains alive and well, so its twisted offspring, eugenics, will no doubt return.
- Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927).
- Reilly, P. R. 1987. Involuntary Sterilization in the United States: A Surgical Solution. The Quarterly Review of Biology. 62 (2): 161.
- Singleton, M. M. 2014. The ‘Science’ of Eugenics: America’s Moral Detour. Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. 19 (4): 122-125. See also Relf v. Weinberger, 565 F.2d 722 (1977).
- Wieland, C. 1997. The lies of Lynchburg: How U.S. evolutionists taught the Nazis. Creation. 19 (4): 22-23.
- Weikart, R. 2004. From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Edwin Black documented America’s selective breeding and forced sterilization program in Black, E. 2012. War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race. Westport, CT: Dialog Press. See also Guliuzza, R. J. 2009. Darwinian Medicine: A Prescription for Failure. Acts & Facts. 38 (2): 32.
- Darwin, C. 1901. The Descent of Man. London: John Murray, 241-242.
- Nesse, R. M. 2012. Evolution: a basic science for medicine. In Pragmatic Evolution: Applications of Evolutionary Theory. A. Poiani, ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 108.
- Pearson, K. 1927. The Right of the Unborn Child, Eugenics Laboratory Lecture Series. No. XIV. London: Cambridge University Press, 12.
- Pearson, K. 1912. Darwinism, Medical Progress and Eugenics; the Cavendish Lecture, 1912, an Address to the Medical Profession. London: Dulau & Co., Ltd. Published on biodiversitylibrary.org, accessed August 10, 2015. Emphasis in original.
- Garland, E. A. 1986. The Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, 1910-1940: An Essay in Institutional History. Osiris. 2: 227.
- Epstein, C. J. 2003. Is modern genetics the new eugenics? Genetics in Medicine. 5 (6): 469-475.
- Dowbiggin, I. R. 2002. “A Rational Coalition”: Euthanasia, Eugenics, and Birth Control in America, 1940-1970. Journal of Policy History. 14 (3): 223.
- Ibid, 224.
- Reilly, Involuntary Sterilization in the United States, 154, 161.
- Ibid, 164.
- Sharp, H. C. 1902. The Severing of the Vasa Deferentia and its Relation to the Neuropsychiatric Constitution. New York Medical Journal. 75: 411-414.
- Chesler, E. 1992. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Reilly, Involuntary Sterilization in the United States, 164.
- Paul, D. B. 1998. The politics of heredity: Essays on eugenics, biomedicine, and the nature-nurture debate. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 97.
* Dr. Guliuzza is ICR’s National Representative.